Need to know
- Qantas and Virgin cost significantly more, but passengers are only slightly happier with their service than with the budget airlines
- Jetstar and Tigerair's on-time performance is only slightly worse than Qantas and Virgin's
- Safety standards are the same across all four major airlines in Australia
Qantas, Virgin, Jetstar, Tigerair: that's usually the order in which we rate our 'big four' airlines, from priciest to cheapest, most reliable to least reliable, safest to least safe. But is that really a fair assessment?
- Qantas is Australia's most expensive carrier, at an average of 21 cents per kilometre according to Melbourne-based travel search engine Rome2Rio.
- Tigerair's 8 cents per kilometre makes it not only the cheapest airline in Australia, but the whole world.
So, at more than double the price, does Qantas deliver more than double the value of Tigerair?
We regularly survey the public about your experiences with Australian airlines and the results are rarely surprising: Qantas and Virgin come out on top, Jetstar and Tigerair bring up the rear. But we've noticed the margins between these ratings are nowhere near as high as the margins between airfares.
- Around three quarters of Qantas and Virgin customers are happy with their service, while two thirds of Jetstar and Tigerair customers are similarly satisfied.
- People are more likely to report a poor experience with Jetstar and Tigerair (six percent and nine percent) while fewer people have a gripe with Qantas or Virgin (two and three percent).
It's no surprise that budget flights often run later than their pricier competitors, but not that much later. Flights arrive late around 17% of the time from Qantas and Virgin, compared to around 25% of the time from Jetstar and Tigerair.
Flight cancellation rates buck the trend; while Tigerair is unsurprisingly the worst performer, Qantas and Virgin aren't exactly doing great in comparison, and Jetstar actually boasts the least flights cancelled.
How do the airlines treat their customers during delays and cancellations? The passengers we surveyed seemed only slightly more annoyed with the low-cost airlines and only slightly more satisfied with full-service.
Qantas appears to be the hands-down winner in this category, with 70% of our survey respondents rating the airline's safety standard as very good or excellent. Virgin, Jetstar and Tigerair follow in order, with Tigerair's reputation for safety thought by our respondents to be the worst.
But is Qantas really Australia's safest airline?
These scores really only tell us about brand perception, not actual safety. Most people (especially those who've seen the film 'Rain Man') know Qantas has a good reputation for not crashing, and most people remember when Tigerair was grounded in 2011 because of safety transgressions.
None of Australia's four major commercial airlines has had a serious crash causing fatalities in modern aviation history. Our airlines may have varying reputations, but on the world stage Australia's reputation for aviation safety is excellent. Our airlines must measure up to our strict aviation standards, regardless of their own standards of customer service.
Qantas, Virgin and Jetstar were all named on Airline Ratings' lists of the world's safest airlines in 2018. The three airlines scored seven stars out of seven, while Tigerair scored only five.
But Tigerair didn't lose points for its chequered past – only a fatality in the last 10 years would be serious enough for that. The two stars were deducted because the airline isn't IOSA-certified. The International Air Transport Association Operational Safety Audit (IOSA) is voluntary, however, and Tigerair only needs to meet Australia's strict aviation safety standards to stay in the air.
"The IOSA is not mandatory. Most airlines choose to do it but we don't require it," confirms Peter Gibson from the Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA). "There's one set of safety regulations for all airline operations in Australia. The rules are black and white – if you meet them you can fly, if you don't meet them you can't fly. That's what happened to Tiger in 2011."
CASA grounded Tigerair after its aircraft flew into Avalon Airport at an unsafe altitude twice in one month. The aviation authority also had concerns about Tigerair's pilot training and maintenance procedures at the time.
Asked whether the airline is now meeting CASA's safety standards, Gibson assures us it is – otherwise it wouldn't be allowed to fly.
Tigerair confirms that it's lifted its game. Since the airline was acquired by Virgin in 2014 it's had "an unblemished safety record", a Virgin Australia Group spokesperson tells us.
Let's not forget Virgin owns Tigerair
We asked Virgin and Tigerair, via parent company Virgin Australia Group, whether there are any differences in the two airlines' safety procedures. They responded:
"All airlines within the Virgin Australia Group, which includes Virgin Australia Airlines, Virgin Australia Regional Airlines and Tigerair Australia, operate to the same exacting safety standards. Each of these airlines adhere to some of the highest safety regulations in the world, as applied by the Civil Aviation Safety Authority to all airlines operating in Australia."
And Qantas owns Jetstar
When we asked Qantas and Jetstar the same question, their parent company The Qantas Group gave us much the same answer:
"All Qantas Group airlines, including Qantas and Jetstar, operate to the highest safety standards and share safety protocols and systems. Qantas and Jetstar pilots and cabin crew train at the same facility and operate some of the newest and most advanced aircraft in the industry."
Peter Gibson from CASA agrees that there's no difference in safety standards between the low-cost and full-service carriers:
All four major airlines have the same operational rules, maintenance rules and pilot licensing rules.
Budget flying might evoke visions of a bone-rattling ride in a rusty old plane that's just been revived with a lick of paint, but that's definitely a myth worth busting.
All of Australia's commercial planes are relatively young, and Qantas actually has the oldest fleet.
Approximate average age of aircraft fleet
- Qantas: 10.7 years
- Virgin Australia: 7.6 years
- Jetstar: 8 years
- Tigerair: 9.7 years
Source: airfleets.net (includes aircraft that fly domestic and international routes)
"In principle [aircraft] age is not an issue as long as they're maintained to the appropriate standards," says CASA's Peter Gibson. "A 50-year-old aircraft could be dangerous, but the oldest commercial aircraft we have flying in Australia would be around 15 years old."
Do Qantas and Virgin hire more experienced pilots? There's no easy way of finding out, but even assuming that they do, greater pilot experience isn't necessarily linked to greater safety.
All Australian commercial airline pilots are highly qualified with a minimum number of flying hours under their belt, not to mention specialised training and licensing to fly the type of aircraft they're piloting. Plus, they undergo continual checks by instructors and a medical every two years.
A 2013 study by the Australian Transport Safety Bureau (ATSB) across three different airlines found that the number of flying hours logged made no difference to the overall performance of pilots.
But a 2015 US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) study seems to refute that. It found that "accident rates seem to increase for [general aviation] pilots early in their post-certification careers, reaching a peak, and then declining with greater flight experience."
So, what makes people choose one airline over another?
- The main drawcard for Jetstar, Tigerair and Virgin is cheaper fares, while Qantas and Virgin win a good number of customers with their flight schedule options and loyalty points.
- More travellers (eight percent) choose Qantas and Virgin because of their reliable on-time arrivals and departures, compared with only two and three percent choosing Jetstar and Tigerair for this reason. This is despite the actual on-time performance of the airlines.
- Safety is another deciding factor for many people. Fifteen percent of Qantas passengers identify safety as the main reason they fly with the airline.
Stock images: Getty, unless otherwise stated.